My lens review and field test of the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is based on my experience using it on the job as a professional photographer.  You will find tips and analysis for using the lens across a broad category of professional photography applications.

This review includes a selection of full resolution JPG and RAW CR2  sample files for you to download and analyse with your own software.  So you can see how the lens performs on a variety of cameras, the samples include those taken with the Canon 7D Mark I, 5D Mark III and 5D Mark IV bodies.

Also included are a number of samples with the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM mounted with the Canon EF 2x III Extender.

Each shot includes field notes of how I setup the lens camera system to achieve the best possible result.

Handling

The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is a big, heavy lens, but has some nice features that make handling a little easier.

The lens includes a fixed tripod mounting foot as an alternative to mounting to a tripod directly through the camera body.  This places the mounting point closer the centre of balance of the lens /  camera system, placing less strain on the tripod head and providing greater stability on the tripod.

When not mounted on a tripod, the mounting foot also serves as a useful handle for gripping the lens.  I find by hooking my hand under the handle I feel less worried about dropping the lens, and have a better grip than by holding the fairly large lens barrel.

The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM also includes a zoom touch adjustment ring that modifies dampening on the zoom ring.  This can be adjusted to stop zoom creep when carrying the lens vertically, but is also useful for more accurate zooming.

Perhaps my biggest criticism of the lens would be handling with the supplied hood attached in reverse (as you would do for storage).  The hood is so big that it completely covers the zoom ring.  You have to either remove the hood, or fit it the right way around to access the ring.

Autofocus

The USM focus system in the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is super fast, quiet and accurate.  I did not have to apply any camera micro-adjustment to compensate for back or front focusing on my Canon 5D III or IV.

The fast focusing speed of this lens is critical.  At 400mm it can be very difficult to keep a fast moving subject within the frame.  It’s even harder to place the focus point on the part of the subject you want in focus.  When you miss, the lens focusing will hunt, and I find that the scene becomes so blurred while this is happening that tracking the subject becomes impossible.

When tracking moving sports subjects, I set a single focus point with Servo AF rather than using zone autofocus.  This gives me precise control over the autofocus point.  In this shot, zone autofocus will tend to focus on the closest object in the scene which could be the net or racket.  Note that this shot does not quite display the pixel level sharpness potential of the lens at at 1 350s there is a touch of object motion blur, something an image stabliser cannot help with.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/5.6
1/350s
iso 100
400mm
When tracking moving sports subjects, I set a single focus point with Servo AF rather than using zone autofocus. This gives me precise control over the autofocus point. In this shot, zone autofocus will tend to focus on the closest object in the scene which could be the net or racket. Note that this shot does not quite display the pixel level sharpness potential of the lens at at 1 350s there is a touch of object motion blur, something an image stabliser cannot help with.

Tracking birds in flight is a good example of this problem.  Hand holding at 400mm while tracking a small fast moving bird is very difficult.

Mounted on a 5D III, 400mm is perhaps not quite long enough for tracking birds.  Thankfully a Pelican is a big bird - but even so the image above is a crop.  You can download the CR2 file to see the full frame.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/6.7
1/6000s
iso 800
400mm
Mounted on a 5D III, 400mm is perhaps not quite long enough for tracking birds. Thankfully a Pelican is a big bird - but even so the image above is a crop. You can download the CR2 file to see the full frame.

The lens includes a limiting switch which is an important tool when tracking in servo mode.  The switch limits the focus range from 3m – infinity which significantly reduces how much the focus must rotate when hunting.

Another extreme crop to illustrate the tracking challenges of this telephoto lens.  Thankfully the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM focuses extremely quickly and accurately.  For birds, I set the camera to servo focus with only the centre point active.  This does make it harder to track, but the autofocus is more accurate  and increase the keeper rate with this superb lens.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/4.5
1/3000s
iso 400
263mm
Another extreme crop to illustrate the tracking challenges of this telephoto lens. Thankfully the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM focuses extremely quickly and accurately. For birds, I set the camera to servo focus with only the centre point active. This does make it harder to track, but the autofocus is more accurate and increase the keeper rate with this superb lens.

Sharpness

The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM has pixel level sharpness across most of the frame at all zoom levels.  This is true when mounted on the Canon 7D, 5D III or 5D IV.  By this I mean the lens is able to resolve crisp detail when the full resolution file is zoomed into pixel level.

This shot of Lemurs at the Melbourne Zoo provides a perfect example of the resolving power of the <strong>Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM.</strong>  The Lemur's were stationary and I was able to take the shot while bracing the lens against a fence post.  I autofocused the camera 3 times on the same contrasty area in the shot so the phase detection had plenty to work with.  I then squeezed the trigger while holding my breath just for good measure.    Even at ISO 3200 every fibre of fur is resolved crisply across the frame.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/8
1/320s
iso 3200
330mm
This shot of Lemurs at the Melbourne Zoo provides a perfect example of the resolving power of the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM. The Lemur's were stationary and I was able to take the shot while bracing the lens against a fence post. I autofocused the camera 3 times on the same contrasty area in the shot so the phase detection had plenty to work with. I then squeezed the trigger while holding my breath just for good measure. Even at ISO 3200 every fibre of fur is resolved crisply across the frame.

That said,  you won’t achieve this level of sharpness with every shot.  There can’t be any subject motion blur and achieving this at 400mm is going to require a fairly high shutter speed.

I'll talk more about the suitability of this lens for product photography later (it's awesome), but have included this shot as an example of the potential of this lens in the studio.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/14
1/160s
iso 800
135mm
I'll talk more about the suitability of this lens for product photography later (it's awesome), but have included this shot as an example of the potential of this lens in the studio.

The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is is at it’s best  between f/5.6 and f/8.  It’s still extremely good at F4.5 and f/11, and starts to loose it’s edge above f/11.

UV Filters

I was initially concerned by softness in some of the early test shots I took with the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM.  The problem was not a focusing issue.  After a lot of wasted time I narrowed it down to the UV filter I was using, in this case the 77mm Marumi DHG Digital UV filter.

100% crop with UV filter
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/8
1/13s
iso 100
400mm
100% crop with UV filter
100% crop without UV filter
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/8
1/10s
iso 100
400mm
100% crop without UV filter

As you will see in the test shots, they have a noticeable effect on contrast.  This is significant enough that I now remove filters when I am doing resolution critical work.  I did get a better result using a Hoya Pro1D Digital MC UV filter, but still inferior to no filter at all.

Image degradation from UV filters is a known issue.  There is an excellent article by Lens Rental that covers this in detail and suggests the better brands.  I have used Marumi filters for years without issue, including with the sharpest lens I’ve ever used, the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USMPlease let me know in the comments if you find a filter that has no significant effect.

Use with the Canon EF 2x III Extender

The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is compatible with the Canon EF 2x III Extender but without autofocus due to aperture being smaller that that required by the standard autofocus system.  Thankfully you can use live view autofocus , and with the Canon 5D IV’s super fast new Dual Pixel AF this makes this lens combination usable.

100% crop without UV filter used in combination with the Canon EF 2x III Extender.  Notice this is significantly softer then the shot taken above without the extender.  This is a fairly extreme test with a small (7cm high) target located 40m away at 800mm.  The 400mm shots above are 20m away  Most labs tests I've seen use a larger target.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM +2x III
f/11
1/6s
iso 100
800mm
100% crop without UV filter used in combination with the Canon EF 2x III Extender. Notice this is significantly softer then the shot taken above without the extender. This is a fairly extreme test with a small (7cm high) target located 40m away at 800mm. The 400mm shots above are 20m away Most labs tests I've seen use a larger target.

The results are acceptable, but there is noticable loss of resolution.  For web shots or other smaller print applications this is probably OK, but perhaps not for jobs where the final image will be enlarged.

When combined with the 7D, the extended Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM provides a 35mm equivalent focal length of 1280mm.  That's not quite enough to fill the frame with the moon, which in this shot only fills about of of the frames vertical space.
Canon EOS 7D
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM +2.0x
f/11
1/1500s
iso 2500
800mm
When combined with the 7D, the extended Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM provides a 35mm equivalent focal length of 1280mm. That's not quite enough to fill the frame with the moon, which in this shot only fills about of of the frames vertical space.
For comparison, here's the same lens setup with the 5D IV.  If you crop a 5D IV image by the APS-C crop factor of 1.6, you get a 19 megapixel image.  An uncropped image from the Canon 7D mark I is 18 megapixel -  very similar.  To my eye however, the 5DIV crop has more detail than the uncropped 7D.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM +2x III
f/13
1/250s
iso 2500
800mm
For comparison, here's the same lens setup with the 5D IV. If you crop a 5D IV image by the APS-C crop factor of 1.6, you get a 19 megapixel image. An uncropped image from the Canon 7D mark I is 18 megapixel - very similar. To my eye however, the 5DIV crop has more detail than the uncropped 7D.

Flare

The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM displays very little flare, and renders pleasant starbursts that can be used for creative effect.

This is a challenging shot for a lens camera system.  The tendency for flare to ghost into the darker areas can eliminate detail in the shadowed areas.  As you will see in this shot though, the pattern on the girl's dress is still well rendered despite having relatively little illumination.  Also of note was the accuracy with which the lens focused despite facing into the sun.  I targeted the fringe of her dress, which shows crisp fibres being rim-lit by the sun.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/11
1/200s
iso 100
100mm
This is a challenging shot for a lens camera system. The tendency for flare to ghost into the darker areas can eliminate detail in the shadowed areas. As you will see in this shot though, the pattern on the girl's dress is still well rendered despite having relatively little illumination. Also of note was the accuracy with which the lens focused despite facing into the sun. I targeted the fringe of her dress, which shows crisp fibres being rim-lit by the sun.

Bokeh

The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM has the beautiful buttery bokeh I’ve come to expect from all Canon’s top ‘L’ series lenses.

This is not a particularly bright lens though, so to produce strongly out of focus background you are relying on the long focal length of the lens.  The best result will be obtained at the long end of the zoom, particularly when there is good separation between the subject and it’s background.

Worth noting with this lens is the surprisingly short minimum focus distance.  At 400mm, this lens will focus as close as 98cm.  This can be used to produce a very shallow depth of field and therefore bokeh effect.

Out of focus backgrounds have a lovely smooth appearance with no harsh edges.   The best effect is achieved by maximising the lens-subject :  subject-background ratio.  In general, I try to get back as far as possible, and use the longest zoom that I can.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/8
1/500s
iso 800
400mm
Out of focus backgrounds have a lovely smooth appearance with no harsh edges. The best effect is achieved by maximising the lens-subject : subject-background ratio. In general, I try to get back as far as possible, and use the longest zoom that I can.

Wildlife Photography

The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is ideally suited to photography of larger wildlife.

At up to 400mm there is plenty of reach to get in close, and the superb resolving power means fine detail such as hair and fur will be well rendered.

Normally f5.6 would give decent depth of field, but at this focus length you'll see that although the giraffes eyelashes are in sharp focus, it's nose has softened.  This quality of a long telephoto lens means you can get very good subject isolation without a large aperture.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/5.6
1/250s
iso 500
255mm
Normally f5.6 would give decent depth of field, but at this focus length you'll see that although the giraffes eyelashes are in sharp focus, it's nose has softened. This quality of a long telephoto lens means you can get very good subject isolation without a large aperture.
For this shot I spot focused on the fringe of the lion's mane.  This gives the camera some good contrast to work with to achieve accurate focus.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/5.6
1/400s
iso 1250
400mm
For this shot I spot focused on the fringe of the lion's mane. This gives the camera some good contrast to work with to achieve accurate focus.
Even at iso 4000 the Canon 5D Mark IV has resolved every detail in this shot of an orangutan.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/8
1/320s
iso 4000
371mm
Even at iso 4000 the Canon 5D Mark IV has resolved every detail in this shot of an orangutan.

Bird Photography

The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is not quite long enough to be the perfect lens for bird photography, but doesn’t do a bad job.

I’ve taken a great many shots of birds with this lens now and find I am consistently cropping the photo down to enlarge the subject.  This is fine for smaller web use, but would limit the use of such shots in print.

This is only the case for smaller birds though.  Larger birds present less of an issue.

This shot was taken on my first outing with the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM and made me fall in love with the lens.  You need to download the full jpg or raw to fully appreciate just how sharp this lens can be in ideal conditions!
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/4.5
1/750s
iso 100
271mm
This shot was taken on my first outing with the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM and made me fall in love with the lens. You need to download the full jpg or raw to fully appreciate just how sharp this lens can be in ideal conditions!
Tamer birds such as this wattle bird allow you to get closer, bringing them into the reach of a 400mm lens.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/5
1/320s
iso 320
300mm
Tamer birds such as this wattle bird allow you to get closer, bringing them into the reach of a 400mm lens.
Tiny birds such as this Splendid Fairy Wren are a bit hard to reach at 400mm.  However, mounted on the Canon 7D it is transformed into a 640mm lens, albeit with less resolution and a bit more sensor noise.  That starts to make this lens a viable option for bird photography.
Canon EOS 7D
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/5.6
1/500s
iso 250
400mm
Tiny birds such as this Splendid Fairy Wren are a bit hard to reach at 400mm. However, mounted on the Canon 7D it is transformed into a 640mm lens, albeit with less resolution and a bit more sensor noise. That starts to make this lens a viable option for bird photography.

Macro Photography

The small minimum focus distance of the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM also makes it a decent macro lens.  This is one of the reasons why it’s now my goto lens for studio product photography (more about this later).

The earlier bee shot was cropped.  This photo is full frame.  To take this shot I zoomed to 400mm, set the lens to manual focus, and moved the focus ring to the closest focus distance.   Then I moved (swayed)  until the bee was in perfect focus, which was confirmed by the camera's focusing system which beeps when the active focus point is on an in focus object.  By doing this, you can get the greatest possible macro magnification for the lens.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/11
1/400s
iso 3200
400mm
The earlier bee shot was cropped. This photo is full frame. To take this shot I zoomed to 400mm, set the lens to manual focus, and moved the focus ring to the closest focus distance. Then I moved (swayed) until the bee was in perfect focus, which was confirmed by the camera's focusing system which beeps when the active focus point is on an in focus object. By doing this, you can get the greatest possible macro magnification for the lens.

It is very convenient to be able to shoot both large and very small items with the same lens and know that the results will be sharp enough for all applications.

Product Photography

The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is now my first choice for product photography in the studio due to its ability to shoot both larger and very small objects.

Time is money when shooting a large catalog.  Its important to be able to set the camera up once and churn through products quickly.  With this lens, you can place the camera on a tripod, fix the focus with a test target, and then use zoom to frame products of different size.  The longer focus length also provides greater depth of field, allowing smaller apertures, and therefore less flash power to be used.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/16
1/160s
iso 800
124mm
Time is money when shooting a large catalog. Its important to be able to set the camera up once and churn through products quickly. With this lens, you can place the camera on a tripod, fix the focus with a test target, and then use zoom to frame products of different size. The longer focus length also provides greater depth of field, allowing smaller apertures, and therefore less flash power to be used.

Previously I used the EF 100mm f/2.8 Macro USM  for this type of work, but being a prime it meant I repositioning the tripod and refocusing for each product.  I can work faster with the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM.  I also believe this lens is sharper.

I can't emphasise enough how convenient it is to be able to take both this and the previous shot without changing lenses.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/16
1/160s
iso 800
400mm
I can't emphasise enough how convenient it is to be able to take both this and the previous shot without changing lenses.
High key white screen studio photography causes flare in some lenses as the screen itself acts as a source of bright light.  This screen is lit a +3ev brighter than the subject which blows it to pure white.  This saves an enormous amount of masking time in post processing.  It also produces superior edges to masking, making it more suitable for very large applications and compositing.   Take a look at edge detail in the full jpg and you will see what I mean.  The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM handles bright screens with no flaring at all.
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/14
1/160s
iso 800
112mm
High key white screen studio photography causes flare in some lenses as the screen itself acts as a source of bright light. This screen is lit a +3ev brighter than the subject which blows it to pure white. This saves an enormous amount of masking time in post processing. It also produces superior edges to masking, making it more suitable for very large applications and compositing. Take a look at edge detail in the full jpg and you will see what I mean. The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM handles bright screens with no flaring at all.

Studio Portraiture

The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is a bit long for most studio portrait work, which probably explains why I have no shots to share in this category – I’ve never used it.  My prefered lens for studio portrait work is the Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM for individual portraits, or the Sigma 35mm F/1.4 DG HSM for groups if I am short on space.

However the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM should be a superb studio portrait lens if there is enough space – particularly for head and shoulder shots.  I plan to put this to the test at some points, and will update this review with a sample.

Location Portraiture

The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is not a bad lens for location portraiture, but again there are better lenses for the job.   Subject isolation is important to me for location portraiture and I prefer to use fast primes, or perhaps the Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8L IS III USM.

This is the only location (pet in this case) portrait shoot at which I can recall reaching for the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM.  Having left my Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM at home this day I decided to give this lens a go.  The extra zoom has a nice magnifying effect on the background.  I originally tried taking this shot at 400mm, but that put me so far away from the dogs that it made direction difficult!
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/4.5
1/100s
iso 100
100mm
This is the only location (pet in this case) portrait shoot at which I can recall reaching for the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM. Having left my Canon EF 85mm f/1.2L II USM at home this day I decided to give this lens a go. The extra zoom has a nice magnifying effect on the background. I originally tried taking this shot at 400mm, but that put me so far away from the dogs that it made direction difficult!

Outdoor Sports and Action Photography

The Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is particularly well suited to outdoor sports and action photography.  Fast focus speed, image stabilisation, telephoto reach, and fast tracking speed are what make a great sports lens – all of which are well represented here.

This was a difficult subject to track, but combined with the Canon 7D,Mark I this lens has done an excellent job.  I was keen to capture individual grains of sand in this shot and so cranked up the ISO to 400 even though it was a blindingly bright scene.  This gave me the high shutter speed needed to stop the action.
Canon EOS 7D
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/5.6
1/4000s
iso 400
400mm
This was a difficult subject to track, but combined with the Canon 7D,Mark I this lens has done an excellent job. I was keen to capture individual grains of sand in this shot and so cranked up the ISO to 400 even though it was a blindingly bright scene. This gave me the high shutter speed needed to stop the action.

Indoor Sports and Action Photography

I’ve not used this lens for indoor action or sports photography.  At full zoom its not very bright and it could be a challenge to get the higher shutter speeds needed to stop action.

Landscape Photography

Telephoto lenses are useful in landscape photography for compression and magnification.

Compression refers to a lenses ability to squash together distant parts of the scene to form a unified composition.

Here's a good example of compression in a landscape photo.  The three levels of land jutting into the sea are compressed together by the tendency of telephoto lenses to magnify images that are further away relative to the foreground.  This shot is taken with a 3 stop ND filter with the aperture at f16  to slow the shutter to 30 seconds.  This creates the softness in the water, and also gives enough depth of field to include both the foreground and background.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/16
30/1s
iso 100
100mm
Here's a good example of compression in a landscape photo. The three levels of land jutting into the sea are compressed together by the tendency of telephoto lenses to magnify images that are further away relative to the foreground. This shot is taken with a 3 stop ND filter with the aperture at f16 to slow the shutter to 30 seconds. This creates the softness in the water, and also gives enough depth of field to include both the foreground and background.
This an HDR image created in Lightroom from 5 bracketed exposures.  Notice how the sky at rear appears larger than normal, adding to the drama of the scene.  Each frame was shot hand held so I was pleased to see that even blades of grass aligned nicely when the frames were merged
Canon EOS 5D Mark IV
EF100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM
f/8
1/100s
iso 160
100mm
This an HDR image created in Lightroom from 5 bracketed exposures. Notice how the sky at rear appears larger than normal, adding to the drama of the scene. Each frame was shot hand held so I was pleased to see that even blades of grass aligned nicely when the frames were merged

Conclusion

This is definitely one of Canon’s great lenses – up there in image quality with the better primes.

Sadly, it does not get pulled out of my camera bag very often for professional photography use.  In part this is because the primary role of the Canon EF 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6L IS II USM is sport and wildlife photography, neither of which are core business here at dygiphy.  It does however make a superb macro and product photography lens.

I have had a lot of fun on field trips and holidays with this lens.  It’s probably too big and heavy to be classed as a travel lens, but it certainly offers a lot of creative potential if you are willing to carry it around.